Photo by Anthony Mair

Paella Making and Pregaming at Jaleo

Tips from the experts on what makes the hearty rice dish a winner; and on the lighter side, try two tapas for $20 to start the night off right

“It looks simple, but there’s nothing simple about it,” says Jaleo head chef Luis Montesinos as he stands above a 2-foot-wide pan, giving it a quick shake over the flames and a smattering of salt. He’s speaking of paella, but the sentiment covers much of Jaleo’s menu, where unfussy ingredients and traditional techniques combine to create sublime tastes. In honor of National Paella Day (March 27)—“Who comes up with these holidays?”—he’s demonstrating a few of the tricks that make Jaleo’s paella legendary.

“If your stock is wrong, your rice is just texture,” he says, reminding us where it all begins. For paella, he explains that the ratio is about 3-1, or 600 grams of rice to 3 liters of liquid, and the pans are suspended over orange wood fires, fuel chosen because it achieves a hot flame quickly. Most of the ingredients in paella are fairly economical and simple, although the necessary saffron spice can carry a significant price tag. Chef Montesinos recommends using the expensive stuff sparingly: Paella should have a subtle tint derived from tomato, not the self-tanner orange tone that can come from the excessive use of “cheap saffron.”

Photo by Anthony Mair

Another crucial ingredient in paella is patience: You have to stand by the pan, keep an eye on it, keep the rice moving so it doesn’t burn but also let it touch the bottom enough to caramelize some of the grains slightly. Montesinos notes that when Chef José Andrés was a boy, one of the first kitchen duties his father gave him was watching the paella. At first, the young chef resented what he saw as tedium, but, as Montesinos explains, “When he got older, he realized that was the most important part.” Currently Andrés is off … somewhere, overseeing literally millions of meals in post-Maria Puerto Rico or planning the menu for the Luxor’s new esports arena. “He’ll call and say, ‘I’m at the farmers market,’ and I say, ‘Where? Which farmers market?’” laughs Montesinos, pointing out that it can be hard to keep track of what city or even country his boss is in.

Once the paella is on the plate, it doesn’t remain there for long, tinged with spice and smoke, slightly caramelized bits, a faint sunset tint to the rice, with juicy chunks of chicken and chorizo adding punch and texture. “You can call this paella,” Montesinos says. “Everything else is arroz.”

The artistic twist on the rustic is also present in a new section of Jaleo’s menu, called La Merienda, intended for when it is “too late for lunch, too early for dinner.” It’s a series of small plates served in the evening. The idea is to catch the preshow or preclub crowd who don’t want to fill up but would like to savor more than one dish. Diners can choose two of around a dozen tapas options for $20.

Photos by Anthony Mair

On the smaller side are almendras Marconas, toasted sea-salt almonds, and Gildas, which are small skewers of olives, anchovies and pickled peppers, each of which stands as its own distinct taste but which also blend in a multilayered, briny collage. José’s tuna salad is as far as the Chicken-of-the-Sea-with-mayo standard as Barcelona is from Las Vegas. Served on crispy, narrow flauta bread, there’s just enough homemade mayonnaise to bind the bits of preserved tuna and dots of shallot and egg.

Pescado frito is swordfish fried in chunks and served with a lemon aioli—the white fish and light breading has a hint of salt that makes them as addictive as French fries. Slightly more substantial are the montaditos, a trio of sliders—Spanish pork with coleslaw, fried chicken and pork belly with apple and mustard. Flights of red wine, white wine and Sherry are available to accompany your meal, again providing variety and value at three for $20.

“We never do anything just because—it has to tell a story,” Montesinos says. It’s not just about the traditions and tales the diners get from the food, but the way eating at Jaleo can become part of a Vegas adventure.

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